A photography book recasts Black actors in iconic movie scenes Photographer Carell Augustus spoke with NPR about his new book, Black Hollywood: Reimagining Iconic Movie Moments, a project more than a decade in the making.

This photography book puts Black actors in Hollywood's most iconic movie moments

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A new photography book puts Black actors and actresses at the center of some of Hollywood's most iconic movie images. NPR's Marc Rivers has the story.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: The images should be familiar to any lover of Hollywood. A man with an umbrella hangs from a street lamp, its glow illuminating both the rain and the joy on his face. A showering woman, framed in closeup, screams at an unseen attacker. A man in uniform salutes an audience in front of a giant American flag. In your head, you should picture Gene Kelly in "Singin' In The Rain"...


GENE KELLY: (As Don Lockwood, singing) I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain.

RIVERS: ...Janet Leigh in "Psycho"...


JANET LEIGH: (As Marion Crane, screaming).

RIVERS: ...George C. Scott in "Patton."


GEORGE C SCOTT: (As General George. S. Patton) Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.

RIVERS: But open up photographer Carrell Augustus' new book, "Black Hollywood: Reimagining Iconic Movie Moments," and instead, you'll see actor Dule Hill under that lamp. The screaming woman is actor Simbi Khali, and that man in uniform is instead a woman, actress Aisha Hinds. In the book, Augustus cast Black actors and actresses in some of cinema's most memorable moments, placing them in spaces long denied to them. He says that omission persisted in the 1980s, when he grew up watching mainstream hits like "Back To The Future" and "Say Anything."

CARRELL AUGUSTUS: We were left out of these stories. And oftentimes, when we saw ourselves in these stories, we were, you know, getting arrested or in a prison scene or in a gang scene. And I just wanted to do whatever I could to sort of change up the narrative, visually and artistically.

RIVERS: Augustus shot his first photograph for the project back in 2010, before Black Lives Matter, before #OscarsSoWhite, before "Black Panther." He knew some people might view the book as a reaction to those events.

AUGUSTUS: At some points, I found myself in tandem with these movements, and I just embraced it.

RIVERS: What may stick out most in the book is that you won't find A-listers like Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett here, not that Augustus didn't go for them.

AUGUSTUS: When I first started this book, my fantasy was to get all the Black A-listers in Hollywood, right? And then I realized if I did that, I would have probably 11 people.

RIVERS: He expanded his net, finding performers who may not be household names but have built a healthy portfolio of credits, like Neil Brown Jr., who you may know as Lawrence's quick-talking best friend Chad on "Insecure."


JAY ELLIS: (As Lawrence Walker) Chad, are you rocking a purse (laughter)?

NEIL BROWN JR: (As Chad Kerr) It's my fiancee purse. She didn't want to carry it in the port-a-potty. [Expletive] expensive. I know 'cause I bought it.

RIVERS: In the book, Brown takes on the role of John McClane in "Die Hard," squeezing his way through a tight air vent, blood and an exasperated look on his face.

BROWN: I was trying to imagine everything John had been through into that point and, you know, imagine what the whole film was about, but, like, stuff it into this one moment.

RIVERS: Brown says the project helped strengthen his sense of kinship to his fellow actors. Same for Amber Stevens West, who graces the book's cover in a black, sultry satin gown as Audrey Hepburn's character in "Breakfast At Tiffany's."


RIVERS: A supporting player in entertainments like "New Girl" and "22 Jump Street," West says a center-stage role like Hepburn's wasn't possible when she began her career.

AMBER STEVENS WEST: It's very much the story of a lot of Black people in Hollywood, where they're typecast as, like, the friend and they're kind of filling a role as, like, the diversity piece in the project.

RIVERS: Then there's Aisha Hinds' General Patton...


RIVERS: ...The first photograph Augustus shot and also the first in the book. Hinds substitutes Scott's withering gaze and granite stance for a knowing smile, a glint in the eye, a curvy bend at the hips. She brings some swagger and a little sexiness to patriotism. She told me this was no accident.

AISHA HINDS: I think the superpower of a Black woman is to occupy the space and the fullness of who she is. And, you know, we don't have to deny our sex appeal in order to also operate in strength.

RIVERS: A veteran of shows like "The Shield," "True Blood" and "Shots Fired," her best role to date may have been in WGN's "Underground," playing the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman. That role pairs well here. Hinds says her take on Patton can remind people that Black women have always been leaders in the fight for this country.

HINDS: We're constantly at war with so many things, and we're constantly sort of taking the battle scars and the battle wounds, you know, and people are constantly looking to Black women to lead armies of change.

RIVERS: Unlike movements like #OscarsSoWhite, Augustus doesn't see his book as a force for change, but he hopes that it subverts people's expectations. And by placing these actors in images sacred to Hollywood's idea of itself, it implies that these images belong to Black people, too. When you see the first Miss Black America, Vanessa Williams, sitting regal and magnificent atop a throne as Cleopatra, it just feels right.

AUGUSTUS: What I want from this book is for people to finally see and realize that we should be considered a standard, too.

RIVERS: And he says things have improved in the industry since he first started working on the book. Augustus is working on a Part II. Perhaps by the time he's finished, the standard he's envisioned could be closer to reality.

Marc Rivers, NPR News.


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